New York Times, February 3, 1998


Limited Horizons


WASHINGTON. Almost everyone agrees that schools need to do a better job of preparing students for the workplace. So the "school to work" programs now up and running in 37 states should be uncontroversial. Keeping employer needs in mind and preparing students to meet them, as these programs intend, seem sensible things for schools to do.

But many parents are angry about these efforts and the $2.3 billion Federal plan that helps support them. Instead of focusing on students in vocational education, these parents point out, school-to-work programs, by law, include all students. And in practice, the programs assume unwarranted authority over their children’s lives.

A central thesis of school-to-work plans, for example, is that eighth-graders should choose careers. To help them along, schools administer interest and personality assessments that direct students toward specific occupations, often ones that have little to do with their ambitions.

Kristine Jensen, a Nevada mother, told me that her daughter, an honor student who wants to work for NASA, had been advised to consider a career in sanitation or interior design. Eunice Evans, a parental-rights advocate in Pennsylvania, described a boy in her neighborhood who wanted to be a doctor but was told it would be more appropriate for him to be a gas station attendant or a truck driver.

School-to-work programs don’t just direct job choices. They also seek to inculcate attitudes. The Federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, which prescribes much of what is going on in the states, requires that young women be encouraged to consider "nontraditional employment."

In conformance with this mandate, a publication of the Texas Education Agency recommends that students be repeatedly tested to see whether they think some jobs are more suitable for one sex than the other. Thus, it advises, teachers can determine "if growth occurs in the student’s views of nontraditional occupations" or "if there is a need for early intervention."

A nonprofit group called the National Center for Education and the Economy has been a force behind both Federal school-to-work legislation and the efforts in many states. Hillary Rodham Clinton served on the center’s board and, before she became First Lady, promoted school-to-work ideas. Ira Magaziner was another active board member, and the sweeping scope of school-to-work, as well as its faith in central planing, calls to mind the health-care proposal advanced by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Magaziner four years ago. In 1993, the concept was regional alliances to survey the health-care plans and decide which ones people should choose; now the idea is work-force boards to consider future market needs and decide which career choices schools should encourage.

But predicting work-force needs is an iffy business. In 1989, for example, a prestigious study declared that by 1997, there would be a substantial shortage of humanities Ph.D.’s – when, in fact, there is now a glut.

Redirecting schools to prepare students for jobs that central planners recommend does not guarantee the economic well-being of those students, and can even be a hindrance. A student whose high school career focuses on specific jobs in one field may discover in college that another area is more interesting and therefore more likely to inspire high achievement. But early specialization leaves such a student unprepared to take the courses that his or her more mature aspirations require.

School-to-work materials frequently insist that all courses, even those in elementary school, relate to the world of work. In Salida, Colorado, the entire curriculum from kindergarten through fifth grade – reading, writing, arithmetic and social studies included – recently focused for a year on careers in health care.

According to a school-to-work publication from the Education and Labor Departments, individuals learn best "by relating what they learn in school to their experience as workers." But that claim is not based on research and reflects an excessively narrow view of education.

Schools prepare citizens as well as workers, and they do so best when students are encouraged to read literature and history not merely for what they tell about the workplace, but for their insights into the human condition. The liberal arts, shoved aside or distorted by the school-to-work system, were so named because they foster the habits of mind necessary for freedom (in Latin, "libertas").

School-to-work opponents face an uphill battle, largely because school-to-work legislation sounds so appealing. Their task in the next session of Congress and beyond is to explain forcefully why further school-to-work programs, worthy though they may sound, are a terrible idea for our schools.

Lynne Cheney, former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.